My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: gadget

Listening to Yesterday: Bathroom Cues

The absence of sound as consumer-product sound design

Twice a day my mouth turns into a cavernous venue for what could be mistaken for a solo didgeridoo concert. This is when I use my electric toothbrush. It’s battery-charged, and takes close to half a day to get enough power for it to last a few weeks. I know the toothbrush is due for a charge when the light persists in blinking after I’m done brushing. I know I’m done brushing because the room, along with my mouth, goes silent. Previous to that silence, for two minutes straight from start to finish, my mouth reverberates with the sound and sensation of bristles going full speed.

When I first started using the electric toothbrush, after a lifetime with the unplugged sort, I was concerned I’d made a terrible and not inexpensive mistake. Those vibrations are my least favorite part of my thrice-annual dental visit. There’s a quiet ferocity to them, and the hum of the machine is matched by the ticklish tinging where gums meet teeth. After a short time, thankfully, I became comfortable with the brush, and now I rarely travel without it. I came, in fact, to admire the vibrations, or more specifically the use of the vibrations as a design element.

There’s a particularly ingenious aspect to the electric toothbrush’s vibrations. Every 30 seconds there is a lull, not a cesura, just the briefest of pauses. The lull is a signal. It means rotate, like we used to do in volleyball during gym class back in high school. The brush is programmed to match the quadrants of a human mouth: front top, front bottom, back top, back bottom. The lull, a split-second drop in the rotary drone, is a signal to switch quadrants. Kudos to the device’s designers, who opted to use the absence of sound as a cue, rather than adding a beep. The absence of sound is one of the great tools in a sound designer’s toolbox. It’s a difficult choice for a designer to leave something out, rather than to add something.

The lack of a beep in the brushing is matched by that battery alert. It’s risky to have something as important as battery life be gauged simply by a little light. What if you put down the toothbrush quickly after brushing? What if you place it on the counter so the light is turned away from you? What if the bathroom is brightly lit? No matter. This brush would rather you learn the hard way. One cycle back with the archaic “manual” brush is a small price to pay to be trained to keep an eye on that light in regard to your toothbrush’s battery life. The absence of the beep as an alert, for both the quadrant-swapping and the battery notification, feels like a conscious acknowledgement of the utility scenario, of the quiet period when brushing takes place: early in the morning and late in the evening. Those are times when any additional noise is especially unwelcome, in life and in consumer-product design.

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Listening to Yesterday: Avoiding Claustrophonia

That droning feeling

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There was a hum in the air, a fast-cycling white noise that filled the room. The room’s one door was closed, and its windows, in order for the machine making the noise to have its full effect. The machine was a powerful air purifier, an allergy-related device designed to pull dust from the room and adhere it to an easily removable filter, a robust one that could last months before disposal. The hum wasn’t merely a presence in the room. When turned on, the device’s fuzzy droning consumed the room. Like a quiet talker who draws in listeners, the machine seemed to pull the walls closer, an impression furthered by the closed door and windows. The outside world lost any presence. Not a siren or a bird or a passing bus was heard for the duration. The use of the machine was never a claustrophobic experience — never a claustrophonic experience. There was an intimacy to it, womb-like, comforting. The therapeutic purpose of the machine provided a positive association with the hum. I wondered if the company that manufactured the machine had worked to tune it, to give it a hum that was pleasant despite being so present, one that felt ameliorative rather than threatening. I wondered if, over time, the hum might alter — erode, degrade — and someone, the equivalent of a piano tuner, would have to come to my home and adjust it.

(Photo by Kent, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Where Piano and Tape Meld

A duet by Danny Clay and Greg Gorlen, both of San Francisco

The syrupy, slurpy, melty place that Danny Clay and Greg Gorlen map in intimate, elegiac detail on “marigolds i” makes for an enticing sonic cul-de-sac, a turnaround in which to get pleasingly disoriented, happily stuck. Time, genre, and technology loop back on themselves and on each other.

The piece appears to be a duet for piano and tape cassette, the latter as much a medium for the former as it is a source of sounds itself. Every form of media lends some quality to that which it documents, and the dissolving, warping aspect of the tape here blurs the place between the piano and the droney, nostalgic sonic space the two musicians seek to produce.

The piano, just a few keys hit in slow procession, creates tones that get stretched in static-laced loops, the brittle little seams heard as tiny crunchy footsteps. The tape bends and frays at times, making the piano come in and out of focus as if it’s a landscape seen through a window dotted with clingy raindrops. Occasionally it is quite clear but misshapen, and other times it returns to its proper dimensions but is tantalizingly difficult to fully make out.

This is apparently a track from a longer forthcoming album-length work. Something to look forward to, for certain.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/nocturnalsignal. More from Gorlen at cascadingfragments.tumblr.com and Danny Clay at dclaymusic.com. Both Clay and Gorlen are based in San Francisco.

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Flirting with Entropy

Squelch and distortion courtesy of Salt Lake City's sunhil

The track “FMMMOPm” by sunhil runs for under two minutes. The transformation processes within it unfold in a manner that works well on repeat. The piece brings to mind aspects of the recent Autechre album, elseq — there’s a short riff that replays itself over and over, each turn tweaked this way and that by various effects, and the shifting of effects doesn’t directly parallel the ebb and flow of the loop.

The emphasis is on a rich, compact squelch, and on a distortion field that never fully encompasses the source material. Interference and static, sonic moirés and signal chiaroscuro are all in effect at various moments, but under the full, strong control of sunhil (aka Jeffrey Paul Shell of Salt Lake City, Utah). The piece flirts with entropy but never succumbs completely.

Presumably this short Instagram video, captioned “Saturday FM” on instagram.com and at his Twitter account, is from the sessions that yielded this track:

A video posted by Jeffrey Shell (@aodl) on

The video shows the screen of a Teenage Engineering OP-1, whose FM synthesis is half of the toolset in the brief liner note accompanying the track:”FM operations between OP-1 and Monomachine. OP-1 FM synth being sequenced and processed by Monomachine, accompanied by a pair of MM’s FM-PAR machines.”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/sunhil. More from Sunhil at euc.cx, sunhill.bandcamp.com, and twitter.com/jshell.

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10 Seconds of Salvation

In the hands of Amulets, repetition is a form of repurposing

Like his earlier reworking of Tony Robbins self-help tapes, Amulets’ New World Translation repurposes a piece of spoken word audio on cassette and transforms it into something that fits into the contemporary world of experimental cassette music — not just music released on cassette, but music in which the cassette is the instrument.

This recording is a 10-second tone set on loop, playing (per his youtube.com video) on a four-track recorder. The loop is a snatch of symphonic white noise, an orchestral drone, like a string section in a deep cistern holding a note until, collectively, they mark the loop’s repeat with a momentary swell.

When Brian Eno wrote that “repetition is a form of change,” part of what he was getting at is how the ear hears new things when subjected to the same sound over and over. In the hands of Amulets’, that change is more practical, but no less evocative. As he write in a note accompanying the video: “the endless tape loop flutters, fluctuates, and slowly degrades over time.”

Here’s the excerpt on YouTube. It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”

And the full 50-minute version:

Video originally posted at Amulets’ youtube.com channel. It’s available for purchase as physical cassette and download at amulets.bandcamp.com. The flipside of each cassette is the unmolested original audio from a series of Jehovah’s Witness Bible tapes. The length of the A-side depends on the length of the individual tape, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. More from Amulets at amuletsmusic.com. Amulets is Randall Taylor of Austin, Texas.

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